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Philae Makes Contact! Lost Lander Calls Out After Months of Silence

Jun 14, 2015 10:00 PM EDT
Pictured is an artist's conception of the Philae lander on the comet with Rosetta in the background.

(Photo : CNES / ill. D. Ducros.)

Last November, a little lander called Philae left the side of the Rosetta spacecraft to make history as the first manmade robot to alight on the surface of a comet. The trouble was, soon after the lander slipped from Rosetta's sight, it was never heard from again. Now, nearly eight months later, the lander is finally calling home, reassuring fretting scientists that it's awake and doing well.

"Philae is doing very well: It has an operating temperature of -35ºC and has 24 Watts available," Stephan Ulamec, the European Space Agency's (ESA) Philae Project manager at the German Aerospace Center (DLR), happily reported Sunday morning.

According to the ESA, signals received from the lost lander - which bounced away from its intended landing zone due to an equipment malfunction - were received at the ESA's European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt at 22:28 CEST on June 13, after being relayed by the Rosetta spacecraft.

The unexpected contact lasted only 85 seconds in all, but in that time the spacecraft was able to hastily relay a great deal of data about its fate and potentially even clues to its location.

Philae, which is hidden on the shaded surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, still remains missing, even after an in-depth analysis of the lander's first signal on November 15. Now, with a second call-out, you can liken the search for Philae to a very slow game of Marco Polo. Thankfully, even before that second signal, the ESA announced that they have a pretty good idea where the wayward robot is hiding.

The worry was that after its unexpected tumble, Philae was damaged - an understandable concern considering the fact that the Rosetta and Philae teams have been sitting by their stations waiting for a call from their wayward robot since March 12 (when Rosetta was specifically tuned to listen for the lander's singnals).

However, Ulamec said that the mere 300 data packages received from Philae on Saturday indicate that "the lander is ready for operations."

"We have also received historical data," he added, noting that Philae has been operational for longer than they thought, sending signals in vain.

So perhaps the lander isn't the careless runaway that never calls that we thought it was. In the end, this all might be chalked up to bad reception.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

 - follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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